Tuesday, February 7, 2017

My Man Godfrey, Carole, and Me

Before the days of cable and the Internet, when there were only three major networks available for viewing, one of the few things on television that always sparked my interest was the perennial showing of old movies, usually on lazy Sunday afternoons. The films ranged from Bud Abbott and Lou Costello meeting a host of monsters (Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and the Invisible Man to name but a few) to the detective adventures of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. My favorites, however, were the sophisticated, and often hilarious, screwball comedies produced by Hollywood studios during the height of the Great Depression in the 1940s and early into the 1930s.

These films, which often matched the wits of dazzlingly daffy females with those of hapless males, featured the talents of such well know stars as Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Katherine Hepburn, Clark Cable, and Claudette Colbert. Who hasn’t chortled over the budding romance between a spoiled heiress and a recently fired reporter in It Happened One Night (1934), the misunderstandings between a married couple in The Awful Truth (1937), the madcap search for a missing dinosaur bone in Bringing Up Baby (1938), and the underhanded attempts of a newspaper editor attempting to lure his ex-wife back to her former job in His Girl Friday (1939)?

My favorite screwball comedy, however, involved an actress who became a fixture in this film genre: Carole Lombard of Fort Wayne, Indiana. In 1936 Lombard starred alongside her ex-husband William Powell (“the only intelligent actor I’ve ever met,” according to Lombard) in the Universal movie My Man Godfrey.

Directed by Gregory La Cava, the movie tells the story of Godfrey “Duke” Parke (Powell), a former Boston Brahmin who after a failed romance begins living at the city dump with victims of the depression. A scavenger hunt organized as part of a society fund-raiser for the underprivileged brings Parke—the proverbial forgotten man—in contact with Irene Bullock (Lombard), a young and scatterbrained member of an eccentric Park Avenue family who, upon their first meeting, charms him with such remarks as “You have a wonderful sense of humor. I wish I had a sense of humor, but I can never think of the right thing to say until everybody’s gone home.” Irene hires Godfrey as the family’s butler and eventually falls in love with her new “protégé.”

Of course, as often happens in screwball movies, Godfrey, representing the decency and forthrightness of the common man, teaches the wealthy family a thing or two about life and saves them from financial disaster. Godfrey, however, has a surprise or two waiting for him when Irene sweeps aside his reservations about romance and drags him to the altar.

A box-office hit at the time, the movie featured fine acting from not only its stars—both Lombard and Powell received Academy Award nominations for their performances—but also from its supporting cast. I still marvel at the fine comedic timing of Mischa Auer, who played Carlo, the piano-playing protégé of Irene’s mother, and Eugene Pallette, who portrayed the harried patriarch of the Bullock family. Not even a fine physical comedian such as Jim Carrey could hope to match Auer’s side-splitting imitation of a gorilla to amuse Irene during a (fake) crying spell.

Her role in My Man Godfrey reinforced Lombard’s developing image as the queen of the screwball comedy. Lombard, who had moved to California from Indiana with her mother and two brothers, had labored early in her acting career in minor roles in silent comedy films for Mack Sennett, had found in films such as Godfrey and 1937’s Nothing Sacred (famous for Lombard using her childhood boxing lessons to good form by punching co-star Fredric March) an outlet for her own often zany behavior, which included the ability to swear like a sailor when the opportunity called for it, a talent she learned from her brothers. She became America’s favorite screwball actress, both on the screen and off.

In addition to her film success, Lombard also found personal fulfillment with her marriage to screen idol Gable in 1939.  Nicknaming each other “Ma” and “Pa,” the couple enjoyed an idyllic life together on their twenty-acre ranch located in the San Fernando Valley. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Lombard was finishing her last role, that of Maria Tura in the comedy To Be or Not to Be with Jack Benny. Lombard and Gable immediately offered their services on behalf of the war effort to President Franklin Roosevelt. It was Lombard who participated, with her mother alongside her, in a whirlwind bond drive back home in Indiana. On Jan. 16, 1942, the plane carrying Lombard and her mother back home to California crashed outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, killing everyone aboard.

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